Gerda came to this country from Berlin, Germany, in 1940 just before the rest of her family fell victim to the Nazis. Living in Chicago, she became a citizen, an accountant and established her own private practice. She led a life of contribution to community and society. She was an avid reader, a philanthropist and astute follower of politics; often sending letters to the president, the mayor and the newspaper. Going through her papers after her death, Drew and I were astounded at the amazing insight and style of expression she employed in her very pointed, no-holds-barred correspondence with the politicians of her day. She was small in stature, but her pen was indeed mighty.
Later in life, as her body began to fail her, the joy of reading and her writing sustained her. She was then diagnosed with macular degeneration.
15 million Americans and an additional 200,000 more every year suffer from the gradual loss of sight due to this disease. A study in Japan published March 15 in the New England Journal of Medicine found an experimental stem cell treatment proved effective at halting this disease with no serious side effects. It is the first treatment using personalized, genetically identical cells derived from the patient.
Reading about the success of the clinical trials, it was Gerda who first came to mind. If only she had the opportunity to continue her life well-lived, well-seeing, instead of having what gave her pleasure as she aged gradually stripped from her.
But the stem cell news isn’t all good. Serious concerns about regulating such trials, research projects and treatments persist. Three women with macular degeneration were blinded in 2015 after undergoing an apparently unregulated stem cell treatment at a clinic in Florida.
"Many stem-cell clinics are treating patients with little oversight and with no proof of efficacy," Dr. Ajay E. Kuriyan of the University of Miami wrote acknowledging that it is difficult for patients to know whether a stem cell therapy or a clinical trial is legitimate. Experts agree more stringent oversight is required.
So what is the future of such research in the U.S.? Are we going to continue to be the leaders in scientific and medical advancements and achievements?
Although the details are scant, President Donald Trump's proposed budget paints a dramatic picture for the American science and medical communities now facing huge potential budget cuts. Not only are the benefits of stem cell research in jeopardy financially from such a budget, but also from any kind of blanket deregulation policy, which he seems to also be favoring. I fear that policy would make the blinding of those three women in Florida just the beginning.
If Gerda had been one of the women in Florida and lost her sight immediately rather than that woman in Japan whose “degeneration of sight” had been stopped early on, I can only imagine what she would have written in her letter to the president.